eBay launches microlending website

Online auction giant eBay has launched a microlending website that lets people invest in entrepreneurs in poor communities around the world and get a return on their money.

Unlike micro-finance organisations that make interest-free loans to people in developing countries, Microplace.com offers investors profits for funding folks trying to build better lives, said founder Tracey Turner.

“You are actually investing in the world’s working poor,” Turner said. “And for the first time you get a return on investment. You can take the profit and invest in more people in a virtuous cycle.”

Turner’s vision of MicroPlace began taking shape in 2005, after she lived for a time with a Kenyan family comprising a single mother caring for three children.

The Kenyan woman bought a sewing machine with $100 she borrowed and started an in-home business making school uniforms for local children. She paid the debt and managed to send one of her sons to college in the United States.

“When you are out in the field talking to these women whose lives are transformed because of $30 or $10, then you are part of the movement forever,” Turner said.

California-based eBay bought Turner’s business plan in June 2006 and the website launched on October 24 of this year. Website visitors can browse investors by country, seeing pictures of people seeking loans and reading about their business goals.

MicroPlace connects investors with micro-finance organisations in the various countries. MicroPlace scrutinises the organisations to check their legitimacy. “Our job is to vet,” Turner said. “We do a lot of research.”

She said rates of return are modest but that investors at the website see value in addressing global poverty. Lenders shoulder the risk that loans will not be repaid.

“The eye-opening thing for everyone is that repayment rates by the working poor remain unbelievably high, north of 98%,” Turner said.

Thousands of people visit the website daily and hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans have already been issued, according to MicroPlace. In keeping with the holidays, some have made gifts of loans by issuing in others’ names.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is the idea that when you invest in a person it really honours them and enhances their dignity as a human being,” Turner said. “Which is different than a hand-out.”

MicroPlace gets fees from microfinance organisations that get money through the website. Money is moved through online financial-transactions firm PayPal, which eBay owns.

“I think it is important everyone from the investor to the person making baskets in a village makes a profit,” Turner said. “The beauty and magic of micro-finance is that it is scalable. That is the only way it will scale.”

eBay has promised that any profits made by MicroPlace will be invested in other initiatives for social good, according to Turner.

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife have channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into microloans through their own foundation and are investors in online microlending website Kiva.

Kiva specialises in connecting altruistic lenders with aspiring business people in developing countries.

In 2008, Kiva plans to begin offering modest interest rates on loans, which at present are interest-free.

“The industry is growing like crazy right now,” Turner said. “It is a new kind of asset class. It is a wise investment.”—Sapa-AFP

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